Life and death on the road with police

Police on patrol
Police on patrol

A3 blocked after crash

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James Baggott went to spend a night with Hampshire police’s traffic officers in an unmarked car. Instead, he found himself alongside officers at a fatal motorbike accident.

I’ve witnessed the worst: The culmination of catastrophic misfortune and the cruellest of endings for a father-of-three.

INTERVIEW James Baggott talks to a police officer

INTERVIEW James Baggott talks to a police officer

I can’t stop thinking about his family. The children who have lost a father. A dad who was simply out for a pleasure motorcycle ride with a friend on a Hampshire road when it all ended.

The world stopping for one man and his family.

I was there to shadow the work Hampshire traffic cops do. The original plan was to spend the evening in an unmarked car – but instead I was thrust into the thick of it and the very worst situation the police ever have to deal with: A fatality.

Having watched the force at work, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the professional officers at the tragic scene I was given unprecedented access to this most difficult of situations.

The motorbike at the scene of the crash

The motorbike at the scene of the crash

And now, more than ever before, I have the utmost respect for the sterling work the traffic police do.

Like you, I saw closed roads, diversions, accidents as an inconvenience. Something that frustratingly held up whatever inconsequential thing it was I was rushing to do.

Like you, I saw the unmarked police cars as ‘unfair tools’; the speed camera vans as ‘money makers’; and the motorway police patrols as only there to catch me out.

But having seen the horrifying results of when it all goes wrong – a father and husband lying motionless – I can see why it’s all needed and just how terrifyingly fragile life on the road can be.

I travel to the scene with my host for the night, PC Chris Powling. He’s been in the force for 26 years and joined the Roads Policing Unit (RPU) in 1997. We head down a notorious biker route – the A272 from Petersfield heading west – to the scene of the accident.

‘Every year a biker loses his life on this road,’ PC Powling explains while we’re on our way.

‘I’ve been policing this road a long time and it seems nothing changes. The speed limits have changed, we have regular and visible patrols, but still people die.’

As we approach the scene – on an unclassified road between East and West Meon – a police car has closed the road. As we get closer we can see the cones marking where the bike went down and there are around 10 officers working away.

Sergeant Dave Sanderson, of the RPU based at Havant, is the senior investigating officer. He’s co-ordinating the officers and logging everything that happens.

The Collision Investigation Team are already on site and they’re busy cataloguing the scene with a £100,000 3D camera.

‘Two bikers were travelling down this road around 3pm this afternoon,’ Sgt Sanderson says.

‘At one point the deceased over took this Ford Focus and, for reasons currently unknown, the rider has hit that tree.

‘His friend came back to find him in the road.

‘The air ambulance was called and treated him for 45 minutes for severe injuries, but unfortunately he succumbed to his injuries and was pronounced dead by the doctor when I arrived.’

Sgt Sanderson’s job is to now gather the evidence at the scene to help with the investigation. Everything is photographed and documented and the vehicles involved seized.

‘We have to do everything in our power to find out whether this man was killed.

‘Was he knocked off? Was it someone’s fault? It is our job to investigate everything,’ he explains.

Sgt Sanderson tells me that a Family Liaison Officer, or FLO as they’re known in the force, has already been sent to notify relatives. The police always do this face-to-face and as soon as possible after the collision. But how do they choose who does it?

‘It’s a voluntary part of the job and something that I volunteer to do,’ says PC Powling. ‘One of my colleagues, PC Rob Lewis, is on his way to the family now.

He has to remain very professional and explain calmly and simply what has happened.

He will then be attached to that family until the investigation has been concluded and will be their one point of contact with the police.

‘It’s a hard job, but one where you can really make a difference. If you’ve given a good service on behalf of the force, looked after them properly and at the end of it they’ve given you a thank-you card, that feels special. You know you’ve made a difference to that family at the most difficult of times.’

The work PC Lewis does is well received. The family later issued a statement to us which thanked him for his ‘help and support’.

Meanwhile, Sgt Sanderson’s work at the scene is ongoing. He’s in charge of dealing with the undertakers, liaising with the council and ensuring every trace of the accident is cleared up.

‘Most families want to come to the scene where their loved one died and the last thing we want is for something to be left behind,’ says Sgt Sanderson.

‘We will have a thorough search of the area before we leave here to ensure nothing is left behind.’

Back at the station Sgt Sanderson is kept busy with paperwork. ‘I have to justify every decision that I made tonight, so working from the notes I write a full report,’ he explains.

‘It will take up most of my shift as it is very thorough indeed.’

As he sips a much-needed cup of tea to warm up after hours stood in the cold dealing with the incident he has time to reflect on the issues of investigating collisions of this severity.

‘The sequence of a fatal collision is played out on our roads a thousand times a day,’ he says. ‘The difference between a near miss and an unnatural death is often just luck.

‘The consequences of the collision ripple outwards with an unimaginable magnitude.

‘If drivers could see the world through my eyes, they’d take more care, be more considerate to others and not take that risk.’

I’m struck by the professionalism and calmness of the entire evening’s proceedings.

But beneath the veneer, I can’t help thinking they must be affected by events of this significance.

‘I’m wearing a uniform and am doing a job, but I can’t say they’re not incredibly difficult to deal with – we’re humans after all,’ explains Sgt Sanderson. ‘But it’s a part of the job. When we’re policing speeding, or mobile phone use, or drink-driving this is what we’re trying to prevent. Events like tonight are a reminder of exactly that.’

n James Baggott is managing director of Gosport-based automotive media services specialist BlackballMedia.co.uk

In memory of the deceased Blackball Media has made a donation of £100 to a charity of the family’s choice. We have also donated £100 to the Police Dependants’ Trust (justgiving.com/pdt), a charity that supports police officers and their families.